Midnight Clear

There are seasons of words and seasons of silence. For me, since October of this year, words have been hard to come by. My words got buried in busy-ness and grief over the loss of a beloved dog, Toasty. Some of my words were replaced by worry, some by sadness, some by pain. The truncated Advent Season afforded little time to sit and reflect and find Christ’s healing and peace. That changed in the singing of one song on the 4th Sunday of Advent.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” has not ever really been in my top ten Christmas Carols. But Sunday, its words swept over my heart and hearing like a balm. I heard the invitation and promise of Christmas as if it were offered to me personally.  The Babel sounds have been all too loud in my ears this past couple of months. In 1849 when Edmund Sears penned these words, he spoke a great truth of the human condition. The noise and pace and weight of the world grow heavy. Life can indeed be a “crushing load.” Mr. Sears, you nailed it.

Today is Christmas Eve 2013, a day we sometimes spend measuring what is done and what is left undone. Somehow Christmas Eve marks the turning point. Today we are invited to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.” When all the frenzy ends and the world quiets, we listen and taste and see. A small candle in my hand reminds me that Light has come, is come, and will come again, and I hold it in my hand tonight. You will hold it too.

Breathe deeply tonight the crisp cold air of Christmas. Sit and rest by the weary road. Hear the angels sing their song of glory, their song of hope. O for the day when peace shall indeed be born among us. O for the day when our song shall be a song of love that we send back to God.

The words below are the words of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This is a prayer for all of us as we wait for Christ to be born:

“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the  climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing, O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”

Happy Christmas to you and yours. May your heart be filled with peace. May words of thanksgiving and praise, hope and joy fill the world, just like the song the angels sing.

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The Way

The great Egret sat in the pine tree next to the front porch. All at once his catch was in sight. He dove with great intention into the river water with one purpose on his mind. One purpose that is in his DNA to accomplish… Catch the fish.

He swept the water with a vengeance. Spreading his great wings to stay afloat until the catch was in hand – or talon, as it were. He arose victorious from the water with a fairly large Croaker in his claws. Proud he was as he flew back and forth between the piers. I could only imagine what was in his mind. “Now what do I do with this?”

We who are hungry sometimes get ahold of a “fish” than is too big to swallow all at once. When we hear teachings that need great un-packing; when we have experiences greater than we have known before. So we fly around asking the same question: Now what do I do with this?

Great teachers, mentors, great awareness of God, great worship in a beloved community are a big catch. We are created with hunger for union with God and all creation. It’s in our DNA. So we watch and wait for opportunity to taste and see. Such opportunity was there for a community in the NC 5-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation this past week. A spacious place was before us where teaching, worship, community and God with us could fill our want. It was indeed a big “Fish.”

Now the work is digesting it all, one small piece at a time. As pilgrims on the way, we travel one step at a time, one bite at a time. We are always in a process of becoming. Holiness is around us and in us in our journey. Sitting with the catch is the work we are called to do.

The giant Egret eventually dropped his fish; it was simply too much for him to swallow and he did not stop flying around long enough to chew his fish in small bites. Small – bites, steps, understandings, changes – makes the difference in how we are filled and made whole. Small is the way.For all the beloved community, for all the Virtual Church, may smallness be your way to life and wholeness. We are together in the journey. God bless us all. Amen.

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Ardie

Henry Arden Stroud was my first cousin. He was what we in Eastern North Carolina would call “a mess.” He was never without a smile and a good word, a story true or false. Who knew? Ardie was born one year to the day after I was born. I always felt that connected us in a most special way. Ardie died August 26, 2013, at the VA Hospital in Durham, NC,

Ardie was my Daddy’s brother’s second son. We cousins lived in Ayden… within three blocks of one another. We grew up together. We walked to Mrs. Buck’s store on Second Street. Ardie always somehow had money. He bought grape chewing gum. I had never tasted grape chewing gum. Ardie said. “Have a taste.” And he gave me the gum right out of his mouth. It was delicious. That’s what cousins do… they share. Thank you, Ardie.

Ardie married a wonderful friend of ours. We were thrilled to have Marlene as a sister to the Strouds. I don’t know the year, but about the time Ardie and Marlene’s first child was expected, Ardie went to Viet Nam. Ardie was always a dreamer, kinda like my own Dad. Big stories, big dreams that may have bordered on fantasy. Still, to be brought into big dreams, visions and wonder is not always a bad thing.

When Ardie returned from Viet Nam, he was different. Errant somehow and more elusive in spirit. Even we, who did not see him often, saw the change. Still I loved him.

His marriage failed. Multiple marriages failed… even the marriage with Ruthie who loved the big Gone With the Wind Parties we all enjoyed. Finally somebody somewhere acknowledged that, though he was not a combat warrior, he had been exposed to Agent Orange. That explained part of it.

The last time I saw Ardie was at a family reunion. He seemed fit and well as he ever was. And he was his usual happy, fun to be around self. That day he gave me framed newspaper clippings from our grandparent’s engagement and wedding. He told me he thought I might be the only one who would value it. I did and I do even more now.

Some might say Ardie was a ne’er do well. Mentally ill. A dreamer and teller of tales fantastic. Meds might have helped. Tonight I remember someone who was dealt genes, not unlike those of my Dad and me, who hope and dream and have passion for what the world can be. Ardie grew up in the Methodist Church, the church in which I am a pastor. For whatever his shortcomings, Ardie was a child of God, precious to me and to many.

I pray, Dear Cousin Ardie, that today you rest in the arms of Almighty God. I pray that you have found peace in your spirit. Thank you for sharing your gum with me. Thank you for sharing your generous abandon. Even though I know you should have been more responsible, I will tell you… responsibility is sometimes over-rated. Thank you for the joy you gave witness to. Rest in peace. Amen.

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Damascus

O God, your people have not changed. Persecution and pain rule and human arrogance abounds.  Your people “have committed two evils: they have forsaken God, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  Jeremiah has a pretty good assessment of the human condition and the propensity for apostasy.

Damascus in the first century was a place where persecution was daily fare. Witness Paul as recorded in Acts of the Apostles.  Paul is breathing threats and murder, a status quo voice railing against a minority who are following a different way. It is not until light from heaven and the voice of God intervene and he sees Christ that his life is turned around and set straight. Change happens only as God’s voice is heard and Christ is before him in the way he moves forward in life.

The scenes from Damascus in the past week have been horrifying, chilling and reminiscent of tales of the Holocaust. Bodies shrouded in white cloth, lined up in rows wait for grievers and burial. We know chemical weapons were used. We speculate that this crime was committed by those commanded by Bashar Assad, whom most of the world agrees is a ruler out of control, except by an ego whose moral compass is apparently pointed to due-hell.

Responses from world powers, including the United States, are moral outrage and disdain. Even today, warships are travelling to the waters off the coast of Syria. Big Sticks and Bravado are rising around the world, and off we go again. My question is: Where are the peacemakers? I was told once that the 82nd Airborne consider themselves the Peacemakers. When the jets fly over us toward the landing field at Cherry Point Air Station, we remember the mantra of the corps, “That’s the sound of freedom.” I know I am beneficiary of the sacrifice of these peacekeepers. Yet with all the firepower, all the sabers, all the ships and missiles, and young people going off to wars, there is no peace.

Damascus is at risk; Syria and the Middle East are at risk. All the world is at risk. What is the right response? How do we move forward as people beloved by God to give witness to the peace that Jesus is? Anointed Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, Life Abundant, how do we live your way?

Before the world falls in a way that cannot be put together again, let us pray God will speak to worldly power in ways that change our world through responses based on love and the value of all creation. Raise up a people, O God, who hear your voice and seek your ways. Turn us from building our own cisterns to drinking from the wells of your Living Water. Give us assurance that you are present with the innocents and the voiceless in their pain and despair. Forgive our unbridled arrogance and self-assurance. Grow the seeds of kindness in us, seeds you sowed in us when we were formed. Make us strong in you that we may rise up, not with big sticks and swords, but with invitation to healing and wholeness as the community of the world, a community that inhabits a very small planet. We rest in your care and provision. Love us through our human failings, we pray. Amen.

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The Book Club

Several years ago I was part of a book club of clergy women and other women from various churches in the District, and the Conference Staff. From the beginning it was decided that we would read fiction. Fiction, truthfully, is not my go-to read. I mostly read non-fiction, theology, sociology, even mathematics and physics. (Sorry, I am boring.) I had to force myself to read fiction. So I read books like My Sister’s Keeper, The Help, Middlesex (not fiction, but group approved) and I began to see the importance of connecting to culture and humanity, the value of being part of the world in a way good fiction brings us into.

One of the disciplines of this new insight borne of my book club experience is that every year I make a trip to Quail Ridge Books to buy at least a few of the Freshmen reads of the year. Universities in the area require a read from their freshmen, a read that will spur thought and conversation among those who are just beginning their baccalaureate educations. Books our college freshmen are required to read are amazing! What Happened on the Way to War has been on the list for more than one year. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on the list for 2012. The story of HeLa cells is all over the news even today!

The book I have begun to read is Let the Great World Spin, which is the Duke Freshman read for 2013. (Sorry, again. I go to Duke first.) I have just started reading today. There is a paragraph on page 20, in the reverie of my afternoon, just as I have sat down to read… Corrigan is remembered by his brother who is telling the story, “Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where he was needed. He took little or nothing along…. What Corrigan needed, wanted was a totally believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty, was that life could be capable of small beauties.”

Corrigan’s brother concludes that he stands amazed and confounded that Corrigan is about seeking light in darkness, triumph in tragedy, “optimism against all evidence.” This work of fiction, that hundreds of Duke Freshmen 2013 are required to read seems to be leading to something important for them to discuss and reflect on. This story seems to be pointing to THE STORY: Salvation, Redemption, Healing, Wholeness.

Each chapter takes interesting twists and turns. I feel like I am turning a kaleidoscope and don’t yet know the design I will end up with. Same colors, different shapes and arrangements. The story is unfolding with surprise, shock, complexity. The great world spins indeed.

We are people of a story, not fiction, but emerging truth. God in Christ is Light in Darkness, Wholeness in brokenness, Healing in hurt, and Beauty in that which is shameful and ugly around us. I have not quite finished this book, but I am hopeful that this work of fiction will point to something profound and true. There are people among us who point us to goodness, righteousness, truth that is Christ. There are people who do the right thing. And forgiveness for those who don’t. I have not yet figured who the hero in the story is. Perhaps it is the storyteller, the one who keeps at the telling.

I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of everyday life from a writer of fiction. How does right prevail? Complacency and over-confidence in answers do not strengthen faith in a spinning world. Who would think a work of fiction would prod my thought so much. Perhaps my life and my faith get rigid and stale in my non-fiction-ness. I am thankful for the shake-up. It’s renewing.

 


 


 

 

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Seeing Through the Eyes of a Child

Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.” I have figured out why he said it. It only took a few hours to see imagination and wonder, delight and curiosity flourish around me in the eyes, voices and faces of the children I was with this week. Such, indeed, is witness of the Kingdom of God.

The Boy was the first to bite at the idea of a treasure hunt. “Treasures? Here on the sand at the river? Let’s go look.” And so we did. With buckets in hand, bathing suits and bare feet, we began our search. Oh, the treasures we find when we begin to look around us. We found feathers, worm eaten wood, parts of firecrackers past, empty crab shells, various fish bones, angel wings, and some undistinguishable blobs that we think were clay. Maybe so; maybe not. Soon our buckets were filled.

One time I looked down around my own feet to look at the pebbles scattered on the sand. Some were shaped like lima beans, some simple pea rocks. The array of color in the pebbles was astounding. All shades of yellow, brown, tan, white, there was a whole palette of color at my feet. I was walking on a treasure a seven-year-old Boy slowed me down and opened my eyes enough to see. How often have I walked and not seen?

At day’s end, the Boy gathered his treasures into a box. He was eager to share them with his family at home. His delight in his find was evident. Treasure found, all valuable in the eyes of the beholder.

Life’s disappointments can blind us, make us myopic. Where have I seen you, Lord? Where have I seen the glory of the Lord that shone round about shepherds watching their flocks by night? What happens in growing up that sometimes leaves us jaded, critical, sad? Could it be that we need the pure, unclouded, uncorrupted vision of a child again? I have worked to be a mature adult, ‘cause that is what is required and valued in the world and workplace. But all that gets complicated doesn’t it?

What would it be like to take a bucket everywhere we go, to gather and name the treasures that are all around us? Then put them all in a box for someone we love to see. We could carry treasures to cheer the world and proclaim God’s goodness in all creation. All creation sings glory; all creation sings praise. All I have to do is see it with the eyes of a child and claim it as the treasure it is. I am so small when I open my eyes, and simply thankful to be a part of what God claims as good. Thank you, Boy; Thank you, God.

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The Labyrinth Journey

The Labyrinth Journey

St. Mark’s UMC, Raleigh, NC

Day 1 labyrinth

This picture is the work of Day 1 on the Labyrinth in the Journey Garden at St.Mark’s. A large crew of men, and one woman, laid block in concrete. We are set in stone now and next week the journey continues.

 

Tuesday prayer dedicationOn Tuesday after the first day, we gathered for Vesper Prayer around the Christ Candle in the center of the Labyrinth. As we gave thanks for the work of the day, and glorified God in the words of Mary’s Song, we offered Prayers of the People writing them on the Labyrinth pattern that would remain under the Labyrinth being remembered and warmed by each foot that walked the path. Those walking would be upheld in the prayers of the people of St.Mark’s written beneath their steps.

Day 2 labyrinth constructionDay 2 of the Labyrinth Journey saw completion of the path with cobbles and gravel. Many hands made the work go quickly, beautifully, and well.

 

 

On Day 3, the Garden Landscape will begin, a lovely setting for prayer that is already drawing people into a journey with Christ. Even now, just knowing this path is here, we are drawn. The Journey Garden will be completed soon thanks to so many who have given so much. This path will be a blessing to the people of St. Mark’s, to all who come in search of healing.

At some point in the coming months there will be a time of Blessing and Consecration of the Journey Garden Labyrinth. It will be a great time of thanksgiving and hope for us all, we who are “pilgrims on a journey.” Come and see what God is doing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Lisa

Today is your 44th birthday. I probably should not announce that to the world; it could damage your game. Plus, after all, I still feel like I should be 44. But alas, I am not. The day you were born I was 23 years old. Your Dad and I had been married 4 years. You were born two weeks before your due date. Probably the last time you ever were early. Your nursery was ready. Little ducks on curtains hanging in a yellow room. (Pre-ultra sound sex discovery!!) Blue scatter rugs and a white rocking chair with a lime green pillow cushion. Plenty of cloth diapers and Q-Tips, which I never quite understood how to use.

I had never held a baby before you were born. I felt completely inept and if I am honest, scared. Amazing to me that a good hospital like Wilson Memorial would send a baby home with someone like me. Thank God you had a Dad who had done a lot of babysitting in his youth. He knew how to hold you and change your diaper. He sang “Dixie” to you. Perhaps not politically correct, but it put you to sleep most every time he sang. When you had colic, he was the one who paced with you.

Did I say I was inept? In lots of ways; you spit up on me frequently to let me know. But not in the singing-to-sleep part. My lullaby of choice was “This Is My Father’s World.” All verses, thanks to Mrs. Salisbury, my Sunday School teacher. “All nature sings and ‘round me rings the music of the spheres.” At 24 I am not sure I knew what “spheres” were, but I sang anyway. You seemed to like it. I don’t even know if Lisa remembers the song, but I do. And I remember how she felt in my arms at six pounds, eleven ounces and all the pounds up to where she did not want to be held and sung to anymore.

Lisa was the most beautiful baby in the nursery. Her head was shaped perfectly. No hair, for almost two years, but beautiful and perfect fingers and toes. At 44, she still is beautiful, a most beautiful person inside and out. She has grown up with a heart as big as all the world, a mind that captures most details, a mouth that could compete with most all who sail the seven seas, and a love for life and all creation, family and critters everywhere that sets her in the company of the saints.

The blessing of family and especially our children is one of God’s greatest gifts. Tom and I have been blessed with two amazing children whose lives have rippled out into marriage and grandchildren whose lives grace and bless us more than we could have even imagined 44 years ago. We may not be a perfect family, and certainly we are not perfect people, even that baby of mine now full grown. But today, I count it all good, all thanksgiving, all praise that Almighty God has granted me such privilege to be a parent to such a wonderful daughter. I give thanks for her life, for all the contribution she is making to the building up of good in the world, and for all the ways she blesses me.

My soul magnifies the Lord, for he has made me a mother, and given me a daughter whose birth I give thanks for today. Amen.

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Jenny

“Train up a child in the way the child should go…” so goes Wisdom from the Ancient Scripture. I saw witness of this proverb today. Truthfully, I was only an observer. Likely allowed in only because I wore the requisite orange shirt. Orange was the color of the day at Vacation Bible School at Saint Mark’s UMC today.  I love Vacation Bible School. I remember when Mother was the piano player for VBS in the Ayden Christian Church. Snacks were Ritz Crackers and peanut butter. Times have changed; Message has not.

I walked through the rooms brightly and creatively decorated in flags of the countries each class represented. Mexico… France… Oui, oui.  I saw the Big Top of the Opening Ceremony of VBS. Impressive enough until I went down the hall to the room where the mission story was being told. Jenny was the teacher.

The classroom was filled with 8 year olds in orange shirts. They were cross -legged on the floor with all eyes on Miss Jenny who was telling them about ZOE Ministries and Zimbabwe. “Did you wake up this morning in a warm bed with sheets and a pillow?” Hands eagerly rose. “Did you have breakfast before you came to the church?” More hands. “Did you have a toothbrush to brush your teeth before you came today?” They may have been thinking…” I don’t even like to brush my teeth, but yes I have a toothbrush.” “ Were you able to clean your body in a shower or tub anytime in the last 24 hours?” (Likely thought of 8 year olds, especially the boys: Of course I did, Mom and Dad make me.) “Yes, Miss Jenny.”

Jenny went on to tell a reality of most of the rest of the world that many people, especially children never hear. “A lot of people in Zimbabwe and the rest of the world could not answer “yes” to the questions I have asked you. In fact there are probably children who sit next to you in your classroom at school who could not answer “yes.” The tenderness of her telling of the story of poverty and need for basic health care in the world and right here at home drew the 8 year olds and all of us in the room to a new awakening. Human pain knows no bounds. Hungry and underserved people are all around us. Even here in the land of plenty, people go hungry and without basic healthcare. Jenny planted seeds today, a Master Gardener and a Master Teacher. God bless you!

The children ended their session with Miss Jenny filling Ziploc bags with washcloths and soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and all the fillings of a Health Kit that will be used with Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network and ZOE Ministries. The 8 year olds heard, learned and acted on a great lesson of faith: serve our neighbors. Share the goodness, give with open hands and hearts, love one another. I saw a great teacher teach a lesson Jesus would have taught. This is church at it’s best; I give thanks. Thank you, Jenny. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Goodnight and Happy Birthday, Dear Barb

Word came on Tuesday that a Healing Prayer Service would be offered for Barb Garlock, a long time member of Saint Francis United Methodist Church, and a former parishioner of mine. The note said that Hospice was being called in to minister to Barb in this passage of life. My prayers for Barb have been mostly in the night. I pray the Alphabet when I awaken in the night and have trouble going back to sleep: Ann, Anna, Anita, Anne, Barb, Brewer, Carole, and so the prayer goes. Zeh is at the end.

Tonight, Barb is first in prayer. I pray she knows what the witness of her life has been. Barb had surgery for breast cancer and thought she was finished with cancer. But a couple of years after the initial surgery, the cancer metastasized to other parts of her body. What Cancer did not know was that Barb was a fighter, a champion of causes, a smart lawyer and a faithful follower of Christ. Not only did she have the illness to fight, she took on big insurance companies who were long on excuse and short on compassion. She rattled cages and battled the illness back over and over again. She raised her children and mixed and mingled with folks, always aware of a higher purpose. Even tonight I am trying to remember how long she has persevered. She and Saint Paul must be tied if perseverance were the contest.

I have not talked with Barb, but tonight the words of an Easter hymn come to me. “The strife is o’er; the battle won.” At last leaning into the frailty of humanity, knowing that the fight is over and a greater battle won must be a bittersweet peace. If Barb had an ounce of fight and chance left, she would surely fight on. Instead of fight, she, on this day, her Birthday, is having a Reverse Birthday Party. Her friends will gather at her home and pick out something that reminds them of her and take it home that they might remember her always. Even without a gift from her house, it won’t be hard to remember Barb. Curly blonde hair, smile from ear to ear, sharp intellect, deep love of family, deep love of God.

Thank you, Barb Garlock, for giving witness to the value of life that is worth fighting for. Thank you for showing us how to live, and now, how to die. Well done, Dear Barb. You have lived a full and complete life in your too short years. Your children and dear Deo have known great blessing in your gifts to them. I pray this time will be precious to you, that you will know great peace. I pray that you know your ministry has been inspiring among us. Thank you. Bless you. Love you. Happy Birthday and Goodnight, Dear Barb. Love, Lib

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